A Look at Critically Endangered Species in the Mekong

Posted: October 16, 2014

SFS Mekong students, staff, and faculty are on the road! Our pioneering gang has gamely bounced in a bus from one side of Cambodia to the other, and has only just returned from the provincial capital of Kratie, on the eastern banks of the mighty Mekong river.

It is flood season in Cambodia, and the Mekong is high and wide and turbid, the color of milk-drenched tea. Our focus in Kratie was upon two critically endangered riverine species, the Mekong Irawaddy dolphin and Cantor’s giant softshell turtle. The international conservation organizations World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Conservation International are working in partnership with the Cambodian government to protect these species, and we were very pleased that both organizations shared about their respective programs to students.

Nou Chanveasna, WWF’s provincial conservation planning coordinator, described the precarious status of the Mekong Irawaddy dolphin. WWF and the Fisheries Administration are involved in ongoing efforts in the areas of research, community education, and promoting alternative livelihoods for local fishing communities. Tragically, despite these efforts, recent population estimates of the remaining Cambodian population are as low as 85 individuals. The threat of being entangled and drowned in fishing gillnets comprises the greatest known threat to this dwindling population. A sub-decree banning the use of such nets in zones near the dolphins was recently approved by the Cambodian government. Research is also ongoing into causes behind a troubling trend of increasing calf mortality.

After our briefing, our group drove off down a small road along the Mekong with high hopes of seeing these critically endangered species. A single authorized site exists for viewing the dolphins, where boatmen from the local community take out visitors. The dolphins can be a challenge to see when the Mekong is high, so we were fortunate and delighted when our boatmen sighted a small group of dolphins and cut their engines to minimize the chance of disturbance. Our three boats were then manually rowed in slow circles for nearly an hour by the patient boatmen as small groups of dolphins breached both near and far. Students’ reactions ranged from excitement at seeing such a rare and charismatic animal, to sorrow at seeing a creature driven to the brink of extinction. A pied kingfisher also made a showy appearance and dove repeatedly for fish beside our boats.

The following day Sun Yoeung, Conservation International’s Mekong program manager, escorted us to the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center, strategically located in a famous Buddhist pagoda. Cantor’s giant softshell turtle was thought to be already extinct, but was rediscovered in 2007, prompting current protection efforts. Every dry season, local Mekong villagers assist in protecting the turtles’ nesting sites, located upon sandbars on around twenty river islands. After the eggs hatch, 5-10% of the turtles born in each clutch are gathered up and raised in the center for ten months before releasing them into the river. Yoeung gently unearthed one of the tiny creatures from its tank and held it aloft for the students as he explained the reasoning behind this intervention–releasing the young turtles when they are slightly larger increases their chance of surviving in the river. A method of monitoring the turtles’ overall population has not yet been found, but the number of nests has been increasing since the protection program started, a hopeful sign.

Other species of turtles are often brought for release into pagoda ponds by villagers seeking blessing, and many of these turtles are now brought instead to the center, which releases endemic species back into the wild. As one of the local community members who works with the project proclaimed, his desire is to see more turtles in the wild, and to prevent the extinction of the Cantor giant softshell turtle. Through his dedication and that of other Mekong villagers working along Conservation International, these are wishes that have a chance of coming true.